Monday, April 10, 2006

Magical Aromatherapy by S. Cunningham (Aromatherapy book review)

One thing that frustrates me when I'm trying to book shop on the internet is that it's sometimes hard to tell how good of a resource a book is or not. Looking at Amazon's site helps, since they offer 'sneak peaks' into many of their online books, but sometimes those peaks aren't enough. Reading the reviews also helps, but most of the time the positive reviews don't tell me much otherwise than the fact that someone enjoyed it (the 'bad' reviews often tell me much more!). So I'm going to start posting about aromatherapy/natural skin care/natural household/herbalism etc book reviews. I've done a few "mini" aromatherapy/miy book reviews in the past, but I'll be sure to blog about each book in depth! I have 30-40 or so books in my collection so it's probably going to take me a while to get through all of them, especially since I plan to keep blogging about other things too! :)

"Magical Aromatherapy" by Scott Cunningham:

This was one of the first aromatherapy books I got, and I still use and love it. Aside from the usual well-known uses of aromatherapy (skin care and medicinal/psychological), another use of aromatherapy is the use of natural fragrances (essential oils) in spiritual matters. Though I've read other aromatherapy and herbal books that provide some information about spiritual uses of essential oils and herbs, I haven't found another book quite like this one. This one, first of all was written by a well known pagan/wiccan (who has since passed) who truly knew and understood herbal lore and ritual uses of plants--but even if you aren't pagan or wiccan don't let that stop you from getting this book! Cunningham was well known for writing for all audiences, so whether you are Christian or Taoist, or are just interested in crafting things such oil blends to wear during meditation or personal growth rituals, this book can be used by people of all faiths to incorporate in their own belief systems. It is not geared towards any one specific religion or belief system.

Chapter 1 begins with a few of Cunningham's thoughts on the subject of aromatherapy and magic. He defines magic as 'the movement of subtle natural energies to manifest needed change' (p. 5), in this case, basically using the scent of plants with visualization to bring change. His concept of magic is similar to what other personal and spiritual growth authors have also described as visualization, and also similar to meditation or prayers used in religion.

In Chapter 2 he describes the use of natural fragrance for spiritual matters in cultures throughout the world. Some of the cultures he describes are the Egyptians, Native Americans, and the Greek and Romans. I think this chapter is very fascinating but it is it way too short! Though he describes some cultures in depth, he only briefly mentions (in a single sentence) that scent has also been used in other places such as Asia and Africa, but doesn't go into detail about any of those cultures.

Chapter 3 briefly lists fresh and dried plants that you may want to grow. Very short chapter that basically lists which herbs are better used as fresh versus dried.

Chapter 4 is about essential oils. While this chapter is also short, it is full of useful information. He describes the difference between synthetic versus natural essential oils in an easy to understand manner, and the importance of using natural essential oils instead of synthetic. There is also a comparative chart of essential oil prices. Though this book was written in 1993, with the exception of a few oils, this very useful chart is still pretty accurate in terms of prices for essential oils.

Chapter 5 is on methods and techniques. He lists several inhalation techniques and describes examples of how visualization can be used. On the usage of essential oils he gives a lot of good suggestions on inhalation techniques (like placing a drop on a cotton ball or using it in a bath) but I much prefer using essential oils in a base oil (which he doesn't describe in this chapter but does in another chapter). Basically his message is to breathe in the scent and he doesn't give any elaborate rituals on how to use the fresh herbs or plants or essential oils. On one hand this is an advantage because then the user can the information in the book to cater it to their own beliefs. On the other hand if you are a beginner you may want to check out another book that describes visualization, meditation, or religious rituals more in depth.

Part 2 is titled "the aromas". This is the bulk and most important part of the book. He lists the common and Latin names, parts used (fresh, dried, essential oil, or specific part of plant), ruling planet and ruling element (western elements), magical influences (what the scent acts upon, for example: healing, love, wisdom, etc), and lore (historical, ritual, and magical uses of plants), for over 100 plants! I love this section especially the lore sections! The herbs are listed in alphabetical order, making them easy to find.

Part 3 consists of tables. The first table is a table on herbs used for specific magical/spiritual matters. For example, under herbs to use "for courage", herbs such as black pepper, clove, fennel, ginger, onion, sweet pea, thyme, and yarrow are suggested. Other lists include aromas of the days, seasons, lunar cycles, those associated with crystals, elements, planets, and the zodiac. After checking out the lists, you can read about the herbs more in depth in Part 2. In this section he also describes how to make a basic aromatherapy base oil, lists six examples of blends (including healing, spiritual, and protection blends), and lists generally true and generally synthetic essential oils, and hazardous essential oils. There are also appendixes and a short glossary, and a good bibliography.
I found these lists very useful, since I don't have to aimlessly flip through part 2 first to figure out which herbs to use. The instructions on making base oils were very simple but clear. I love the examples of blends he suggested, but as I mentioned this book is more of a reference to make your own blends, rather than using the author's "recipes". I actually prefer this, since I may not have all the oils listed in the recipes, but I may have adequate different herbs or oils listed on the lists that I can use to make a blend that caters my own needs.
The true and generally synthetic essential oil lists are still pretty accurate with the following exceptions: he says that true coconut oil has no coconutty smell. This is only partially true; if coconut oil is refined, it has no smell, but extra virgin, unrefined coconut oil does smell coconutty. I think he was comparing artificial coconut scent with refined coconut oil (fatty oil NOT essential oil. To my knowledge there is no coconut essential oil). He lists frankincense as often imitated; while this may be true, if you buy from any reputable supplier, it shouldn't be a problem obtaining genuine frankincense. He mentioned an absolute of honey is produced but not available to the public. Currently, it is now available to the public but it is extremely hard to find. He also mentions mimosa is unavailable, but it has recently been made available but it is very difficult to find too. Furthermore, he states that tuberose is rarely available; this is still true but it is becoming more popular and easier to find.
For the hazardous oil list, the information he provides is still for the most part accurate, but I don't completely agree with all of his advice. Some of the citrus, peppermint, and lemon like scents can be irritants (and the citrus are usually phototoxic) as stated, but they can still be used on the skin by most people, though at very low concentrations (less than 1/2%), and, in regards to the citrus, at night. Those with sensitive skin should probably avoid usage as suggested.

Overall, I love this book. This book is unique in that it lists herbs for different spiritual uses, and can be used by any belief system. It is easy to use and comprehend, and full of useful information. Since this book was written over ten years ago some things (like which essential oils are genuinely true and which are synthetic) can be a little out of date, but for the most part those lists are still accurate. Definitely a must-have for anyone who wants to make their own spiritual blends for meditation or ritual work.